Principal Andrea Taylor, OCT, sets an inclusive tone while transforming a misunderstood high school into a force to be reckoned with.
By Jessica Leeder
Photos: Markian Lozowchuk
To view our Great Teaching video archive, visit oct-oeeo.ca/GTvideos
It’s just a regular spring afternoon at M. M. Robinson High School but as principal Andrea Taylor, OCT, walks the hallways, a buzz begins to grow. Crossing a second-floor mezzanine that overlooks a lineup of global flags hanging in the foyer, Taylor calls out to several students whom she knows by name. They lift their heads at the sound of her voice and smile at the sight of her — a petite beacon in a red leather jacket. She knows just what to say to get the teens to drop their guard: she strikes up easy conversations about what they’re doing, learning, looking forward to as she moves past wood and machine shops and onto cosmetology, where students are learning how to do manicures and up-dos.
Pausing at the gym doors, Taylor watches for a moment as a group of phys-ed students take instructions on how to play wheelchair basketball. When the game is over, a group of five rosy-cheeked girls encircle Taylor, chattering with excitement at her invitation to explain what it feels like to make baskets when you cannot use your legs.
What they’re showing is empathy; seeing it in action practically makes Taylor burst with pride. For the past five years, the principal [who is now in a new job within the Halton District School Board] has been reshaping the high school into a place of equity that offers inclusive, diverse and respectful education.
“No one here is better than anyone else. We all do it together,” Taylor says firmly, outlining an oft-repeated mantra that has galvanized both staff and students. “We have no cliques and there is minimal bullying.”
Much has been accomplished since 2012, when the 27-year teaching veteran arrived to lead the school. M. M. Robinson has been transformed, literally and figuratively, into a vibrant, engaged and more fulsome community.
“When I came here, the school had a reputation of being a big, tough school in Burlington,” Taylor says. “It was a misunderstood school. But you’ve got to work with what you’ve got.”
Immediately, Taylor — who was recently named one of Canada’s Outstanding Principals by The Learning Partnership, a national charity that supports public education — set about changing the high school’s image from the inside out.
Signs of this effort are everywhere. The entryway has been converted into what Taylor calls the “Community Commons,” adorned with the aforementioned flags that represent nations of the school. The message Taylor intends to send — loudly and clearly from the first moment one walks into her school — is that everyone is welcome.
“Symbolically, they represent our diversity. We suspend judgment at the door,” she says, adding: “The facility has moved from being a traditional school to feeling like a community base. All of our students really are engaged.”
Getting to this point, though, was not without a learning curve. In her first year, Taylor learned that M. M. Robinson was one of five (now one of six) schools in the Halton District School Board that would be instituting the Community Pathways Program (CPP), an alternative program for students with a host of learning and developmental disabilities. They range from mental health issues and learning exceptionalities to forms of autism or physical limitations. Arriving at age 13 or 14, CPP students remain in the school for seven years, until they are 21, to maximize learning and development. During their time at the school, Taylor says, students work to develop independence and, in some cases, earn an employability certificate that will help them get work in the community.
It was Taylor’s job to ensure the program’s implementation and success. To do this, she would have to take on both an old school built in 1963 and dated mindsets that might not be open to the learning requirements of a new non-mainstream student population with different needs, tools and appearances.
Nevertheless, Taylor took on the challenges with gusto. Washrooms had to be accessible and the school’s existing elevator could not accommodate the new students’ needs. So Taylor, a big picture thinker, had a larger elevator creatively installed in the school’s courtyard. While she was at it, the high school principal also found the budget to give the courtyard a facelift, transforming it into an “Outdoor Learning Commons.” Complete with a flower garden and open-air classroom, the commons is used by many classes for outdoor lessons in warm weather.
She also hired a crack team of teachers, a strategy Taylor credits with having made the CPP a success — it has grown from a mere 10 to more than 40 students. Stephanie Clapham, OCT, the CPP Lead Teacher, was one of those hires.
Clapham says that, from day one, Taylor set an inclusive, welcoming tone for the school. “Andrea’s leadership helped shape respect and acceptance for our students.”
Taylor continues to uphold those values, which she preaches daily. “It is about getting everyone to understand that everybody has ability within a disability,” she says. “Nobody is perfect.”
Andrea allows us to run with our ideas. She gives us the freedom and support ... then stands behind us to make it work.
CPP students are invited to all school assemblies and expected at each. “Andrea has never said that we can’t attend because people need to be quiet,” Clapham says. “She knows our world isn’t quiet.”
Neither is it easy, although Taylor does what she can to smooth the bumps. In an effort to prepare CPP students before they venture out into the community, the team helps to develop some skills for individual independence and the workplace. Taylor has supported an effort by Clapham and other teachers to create what they call “Robinson’s Closet.” Located in a third-floor classroom, the CPP students have created a thrift store that offers free clothing, school supplies, hygiene and other items to students. Open two times per week, Robinson’s Closet teaches CPP students how to do everything from taking and replenishing stock to folding clothes and organizing community donations. But setting it up — and getting the appropriate board clearances — has taken more than a year. Taylor has steadily backed the cause despite its experimental status. “As a principal, you’ve got to trust your staff,” she says.
That mindset serves to both inspire and fuel Taylor’s team.
“She allows us to run with our ideas,” Clapham says. “She never says ‘No’ if [our ideas] are in some way beneficial. She gives us the freedom and support ... then stands behind us to make it work.”
Taylor is also a supreme motivator. “She wants you to do more to achieve your potential,” explains Clapham. “You can spin your wheels, sometimes, with that old typical curriculum. Here, you never spin your wheels. Andrea is always pushing people to do their best.”
Students also get that message and there is data to prove it. The Ontario Secondary School Literacy Test (OSSLT) scores have gone up eight per cent over the past two years; visits to the school library — which has been revamped into what Taylor calls the “Learning Commons,” complete with a cozy electric fireplace and bistro-style tables — recently logged a remarkable 10,000 visits (the student population is about 700).
Inside the school, Taylor makes sure students see her day in and day out, leading by example. “She is the type of principal who will go outside with the Eco Club and clean up the courtyard or plant flowers in the front of the school. She will stop by the music room to tell the band how great they played at yesterday’s performance,” says Caroline Mahut, a Grade 12 student. “She stops students in the hall to congratulate them on a personal achievement, compliment them about something they have done. As a principal, she is a person we all look up to, respect and thank for her hard work.”
For Taylor, that is more than enough validation for her approach.
“If staff are feeling energized and honoured for what they’re doing, it trickles down to your students,” she says, adding: “If the kids believe that you believe in them, they will do their best. They don’t want to fail.”
The OCT featured in this profile has been recognized with a national teaching award and exemplifies the high standards of practice to which the College holds the teaching profession.
Try these five approaches that award-winning principal Andrea Taylor, OCT, uses to drive positive change that inspires, motivates and can transform a struggling school into one that is successful and brimming with spirit:
Trust your people.
It’s so important to create a safe space. If your staff feel that you trust them, then they will trust the students and you will inevitably get good work out of everyone.
Gear it up.
Equip your teachers with instructional strategies that they can put to use in their classrooms. These tools will help them build relationships and empower their students to attain their goals.
Shift it up.
The goals are to move students up within the board’s four levels of achievement. We all know that a teacher’s job is to increase the achievement of a child. This is the ultimate goal.
Stay the course.
Every year, when I have new staff, I give a history of what we’ve done. They see what we’ve accomplished as a community, where they fit in and where we’re going.
Track it and celebrate it.
Track changes, including credit accumulation and sense of belonging, with data; then celebrate the successes individually (for instance, with personal notes to teachers), or as a school.